The practice of using natural plant extracts has survived for centuries despite the advent of modern medicine and powerful new drugs. Why? Because it works! Western culture is adapting things from other cultures that have a scientific basis for effectiveness. It is not by accident that these remedies have been used for centuries.
Integrative Medicine, which attempts to integrate the best of traditional as well as Western medicine is beginning to reveal the scientific basis for the usefulness of traditional healing plant extracts. By applying the modern techniques of biotechnology, including DNA sequencing and molecular biology, researchers seek to explain the wisdom embedded in the practice of Eastern medicine. Many of the major universities such as Harvard and Johns Hopkins have established entire departments of Integrative Medicine for researching these exciting new therapies.
This makes sense in today’s world. Plants have always been a key to human health. In ancient times, plants were often the only “medicines” that were readily available. Large pharmaceutical companies did not always exist. The Greeks used an aspirin-like substance from the bark of willow trees to treat symptoms. Green tea is a traditional beverage in many cultures as part of an everyday ritual. Now, we know that green tea contains antioxidants that have many positive health benefits. Pinecones were also traditionally boiled in large kettles and the extract drunk as a tea to provide immune support for health and wellness. As our understanding of the highly complex immune system grows, we have learned that many plants appear to have positive effects on the immune system.
In fact, several compounds derived from plants have become prescription drugs that are used daily by thousands of people. One of the most potent cancer chemotherapy drugs, Taxol, was isolated originally from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree. Taxol was so successful that there was a concern that the Yew tree forests would be wiped out, since destruction of the trees was necessary to manufacture the drug. This highly active anti-cancer compound, now made without destroying trees, provided the starting material for an entire new class of drugs to fight cancer.
Why can’t the immune system alone prevent us from getting cancer?
In some instances, it can. However, many tumors quite literally have the ability to hide from the immune system to prevent their destruction. This property allows the tumor to grow despite being surrounded by an army of killer immune cells. In other words, the immune cells cannot see the enemy!
The ability of malignant cells to evade detection is now considered an important hallmark of cancer and helps to explain why tumors are not destroyed by the immune system before they have a chance to grow and sometimes spread throughout the body.
Remarkably, it has now been discovered that some cancer chemotherapy drugs enhance the immune system’s ability to kill tumor cells. For example, Taxol, in addition to killing tumor cells directly, sensitizes tumor cells to killing by immune T cells. This was unexpected and exciting: The immune-stimulating property of many cancer drugs may help explain why they are so effective at destroying tumors.
Although there is a lot more to learn about the precise manner in which cancer cells evade the immune system, more effective cancer drugs are being developed that exert immune-enhancing effects. There is certainly a high, unmet medical need for new drugs that take advantage of the immune system’s ability to fight disease. This represents a new frontier in drug development.
The take-home message?
It is important to stay healthy by keeping your immune system in top shape so that it can respond and protect your body when needed. Natural products with no side effects that are taken daily, together with good nutrition, sleep and low stress work best to stay well. Then, in cases where drugs are required to fight disease, take comfort from the fact that an increasing number of medications enlist the help of your immune system.
Your immune system is the best defense.